It was to be a show-us-what-you-got kind of game, one of those intersectional tales of two leagues, styles and coaching philosophies, not to mention the ultimate talent-and pride-check for the visiting boys from Syracuse, who came into the Charlotte Coliseum last Saturday night undefeated and fairly unimpressed with the rejuvenation of North Carolina. But what it turned out to be was just another showcase for the Tar Heels' marvelous 6'6" swingman, Michael Jordan; just another deb party for their 6'11" freshman, Brad Daugherty; and a blowout for the defending national champions. The Tar Heels squeezed the Orange dry, sending the 12th-ranked invaders from The Big East back to snow country with an 87-64 licking.
With the curly-haired Canadian, 6'8" Leo Rautins—the most spectacular passer in college—running the show, Syracuse had roared past 11 opponents while shooting better than 56% and averaging more than 90 points a game. But that was against competition largely unacquainted with the word defense.
For all the Dean Smith mystique and four-corners mumbo jumbo, Carolina has always won on its defense—traps and zones, runs-and-jumps, mixups and scrambles. It was the defense that had bailed the team out of its early season malaise, while it struggled to keep its Heels above the Tar. And it was the defense that most worried Rautins and Coach Jim Boeheim. "We know we're playing against a reputation, a tradition and a huge name here, but we're not in awe or anything," said the senior known as White Magic. "I just hope I can read their changing defenses."
Rautins accomplished that for a while. His clever passing set up easy buckets that kept the Orange even with North Carolina through the first half (a 35-35 tie) and put it ahead early in the second. Two minutes into the half, Syracuse had a 40-36 lead with possession. But here's how solid an impact the Tar Heels' suffocating defenses and newly developed power game had made; here's how explosive the Carolina attack had become: At precisely this juncture, Boeheim actually considered ordering his team into its delay game.
Granted, the smaller Orangemen were being swallowed on the boards—they ultimately lost the rebound battle 43-28. And they were having an equally miserable time with the refs—Syracuse would commit 33 fouls, four players would foul out and the team would be outscored from the line 37-10. But hold the ball on the road with 18 minutes left? "We couldn't cope with the two 7-footers [Daugherty and 6'9"-plus Sam Perkins] any longer," said Forward Tony Bruin.
That Syracuse was unable to go into its delay game was primarily a result of the work of the 17-year-old Daugherty, who may be a Worthy successor after all to the departed James, who now plays for the Lakers. First Daugherty blocked a driving jumper by Erich Santifer, whose 24 points turned out to be Syracuse's only offense. Shortly, Daugherty drew a couple of fouls and made three free throws. Then he banked a lay-in. Later he blocked and intimidated several more shots. Somewhere in there another tender freshman, Guard Steve Hale, converted a three-point play after a gutsy, spinning fast-break drive through heavy traffic. In four minutes Carolina went from 36-40 to 51-43. After Santifer cut the lead to five points with 13:15 to play, Jordan started hitting from the corners, which effectively caved the roof in on Syracuse. Four straight Tar Heel baskets made it 59-46, and the Orange never got closer than nine points again.
It wasn't simply Jordan's 18 points and seven rebounds or Daugherty's 15 and nine (in only the third start of his brief career) that were so impressive. Again, it was defense that turned the contest into a rout. Theirs and the team's.
Once Jordan blocked a Gene Waldron jump shot from behind. Another time he blocked, then caught in midair a Bruin jumper—and Bruin is one of the storied leapers in the country. In the man-to-man, Jordan guarded Rautins, Perkins had Bruin and Daugherty covered the rest of Mecklenburg County. As a result, Rautins and Bruin, who had been combining for 15 baskets a game, didn't make their ages in shooting percentage. Together they made four of 21 (19.0%).
"I knew they were a smart team," Rautins said, "but I didn't think anybody could stop our running game like that. We played right into their hands."
It wasn't as if Syracuse hadn't recognized the peril of taking on Carolina. "Dean has found all the answers," Boeheim said on Friday. "I think North Carolina will win the ACC or come very close. And they're still solid contenders for the NCAA. We don't have to win to prove we're good. Nobody expects us to win. How many teams from outside the ACC have come into the state and beaten North Carolina? One? Two?"
Discounting Pennsylvania's shocking upset of the Tar Heels in the first round of the 1979 NCAA tournament, only five times since 1967 has that feat been accomplished in regular-season play, and two of those defeats were by Furman, a nearby South Carolina school that has lots of crowd support for its annual game against UNC in Charlotte. Indeed, the 1978-79 Magic Johnson Michigan States and the 1980-81 Isiah Thomas Indianas lost to Carolina in Carolina before going on to win the national championship.
Conversely, another bit of history shows that if one is going to get the Tar Heels, one should get them now, inasmuch as the team had quickly joined the roll call of NCAA champions who fell from grace in defense of their title. Post-UCLA dynasty, only one champion has been able to sustain the glory the morning after. The scenarios for teams following their championship seasons have been downright eerie: Indiana in 1976-77—started the season 5-5, finished 14-13; Kentucky in 1978-79—started 6-7; Michigan State in 1979-80—started 5-2 but lost seven of the last eight and finished 12-15; Louisville in 1980-81—started 0-3 and 3-7; Indiana in 1981-82—started 6-5. Only Marquette in 1977-78 put together a consistent season, but then the Warriors lost to Miami of Ohio in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
This season North Carolina's woes began when the team missed six one-and-one free-throw opportunities late in its opening game against St. John's and lost 78-74 in overtime. The Tar Heels' preparedness, the envy of Smith's peers, is based on dogged teaching in the preseason and an early schedule that is routinely the toughest in the land. Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote has said that teams should avoid Carolina at all costs in December because Smith has his team "so far ahead of everybody else."
But this time Smith may have over-scheduled. Five of the first six opponents (and 11 of the first 15) went to postseason tournaments last season, and Carolina was playing four of them away from home. What's more, five key players had been injured during preseason workouts, inhibiting the learning process. Besides Perkins missing 15 days with a knee injury and Jordan suffering a broken wrist, freshmen Daugherty and Curtis Hunter and 6'11" sophomore Warren Martin were also hurt and fell far behind.
It was a semi-miracle that Carolina didn't begin 0-4. After losing to St. John's and Missouri, the Tar Heels got a dazzling, loose-ball pickup and blind turnaround desperation 24-foot heave shot by Jordan in the final four seconds to tie Tulane before they won in triple overtime. And only an inventive collapse by LSU—which led 21-9 at intermission—brought victory over the Tigers. Following a loss at Tulsa, the champions' record was 3-3.
Smith was nonplussed. "My one fear was that the team would concentrate on the won-lost and not realize the strength of the teams we were playing," he said.
Says Jordan, "Losing started to set in. I hated it. Questions pop into your mind, like when is losing going to end?" And this from a confident young man who would see his NCAA championship-winning shot in New Orleans memorialized on the cover of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro telephone directory.
Having misplaced his shooting touch, senior Matt Doherty whiffed on 31 of 47 shots through the first six games. Perkins seemed to be coasting when he wasn't being double-teamed inside; he was rudely outplayed by Missouri's Steve Stipanovich. Daugherty hadn't matured enough defensively to earn a position among the starters, whose rebounding was in disarray. Thus, Jordan and Doherty had to play out of position, at small and big forward, respectively.
Then there was the thrilling soap opera in backcourt. Critics were calling for the scalp of the inconsistent Jimmy Braddock. Meanwhile, Hale, the rookie heir apparent to last year's point guard, Jimmy Black, languished on the bench. On Dec. 21, however, Braddock may have turned the whole season around for himself, as well as his team, with a sterling floor game in his hometown of Chattanooga as the Tar Heels beat the juggernaut of the Southern Conference, Tennessee-Chattanooga, 73-66. It was exactly the confidence-builder Carolina needed before a trip to Hawaii, where the Tar Heels drubbed the Rainbow Classic field, avenging their loss to Missouri in the finals, 73-58. This time Perkins dominated Stipanovich 24 points to 12, and 13 rebounds to five.
Slumbering Sam hadn't fallen into a trance after all. Braddock hadn't thrown any passes into the Banzai Pipeline. The team hadn't panicked. And Daugherty was finally starting, enabling Jordan and Doherty to move back to their natural positions of big guard and small forward.
Last week the Tar Heels were back in the SI Top 20 at No. 14 and ready for Syracuse. In a torturous practice the night before the game, Smith was caustic. "What do I have to do, beg?" he snapped at Daugherty, who had messed up an in-bounds play. Later, it was Syracuse that begged Daugherty for mercy. "He seems to be the difference," Boeheim said of Daugherty. "Without Brad, Carolina wasn't big. They were searching. They weren't a team to be reckoned with. Now they're as good as anybody."
In the other locker room, where he charmed and yessir-ed the media, Daugherty seemed unaware of his own importance. "I'm not trying to replace Worthy," he said. "Like Coach says, I'm replacing Sam, and Sam's replacing Worthy. I'll never be a James Worthy...or a Sam Perkins. I'm just trying to be me." And because he is, the national champions are now 10-3 and playing like, well, national champions.